Cetacean Society International
Whales Alive! - Vol. X No. 3 - July 2001
What Is The LFA Really Like?
By William Rossiter, CSI President
When was the last time you tried to imagine what it would be like to be a whale or dolphin? Whether you gave that up as a child, or the child within you is still active, let's try it again, to get across why CSI and so many others have been so concerned with the Low Frequency Active Sonar (LFA). What might the LFA seem like to a whale or dolphin?
No one really knows, and that's our point. We've absorbed all that the experts can tell us, we've ignored the hype, and we've watched officials ignore the potential problems. We're making an educated guess with the best that science, physics, and technology has told us, and we challenge anyone to prove the following wrong, please.
After a diligent effort we are convinced that science cannot now answer the tough questions. Without facts scientists seem reluctant to express their concerns. And rather than fill the gaps with caution, regulators and noisemakers instead are stretching the limits.
Imagine you're a mother North Atlantic right whale, one of the 20-30 percent that use an unknown offshore feeding area outside of the Bay of Fundy, probably outside of the special zone where the Navy agreed to limit the LFA's noise because of specific concerns for injuring one of you. You don't know it, but there are only about 325 of you left in this whole ocean!
You've brought your calf to the rich offshore feeding grounds your mother showed you. For hours there have been strange noises, much weaker near the surface. They vanish often. You ignore them. But now you hear a ship coming close. You and your baby dive together to escape, to wait until the ship passes. It's worked before, every time. But the new noise keeps getting painfully louder. You don't know how to escape. You pause, afraid to leave your baby. It stops; you're confused. It starts again, even louder. You become disoriented and traumatized. Where is the surface? Your calf will need to breathe. Where is your calf? The noise finally stops as your hearing is destroyed.
Because of the heavy seas, darkness, and dense patches of plankton the ship never knew you both were in their path. They won't see you surface either, now deaf and separated from your calf.
OK, would you rather be a spotted or spinner dolphin? You're one of thousands spread across miles, comfortably immersed in your own social group, traveling with the vast numbers of others, searching for food. You become aware of strange low sounds that come and go, barely audible in the ocean's constant din. Someone finds prey ahead, and you join the excited sweep of dolphins diving to the squeezing blackness below. Surrounded by kin and whistles you dive to feed and surface to breathe for some time before the LFA ship begins to transmit again, over 50 miles away.
The strangely tingling sounds suddenly get louder as you dive into the thin disk of LFA noise between you and the large school of fish you are all hunting in darkness. You know nothing of the air squeezed into small spaces in your body as you dive deep, or the danger when the strange noise's changing frequency and your airspace's dimensions produce destructive resonance. Perhaps it feels like intense heat, or jolting pain, but the specific noise doesn't stop soon enough and some blood vessel or other tissue in you tears. You stop in the noisy zone, confused and hurt, and the damage is done quickly. All around you hundreds of dolphins going up or down through this terrible zone suffer pain and confusion. Some die quickly as hemorrhaging blood floods brain tissue. Alarm and pain calls are everywhere. Some feel trapped below the pain-causing depth and suffocate in panic. Some go up or down enough to ease the pain; they still might escape. When the noise stops a lucky few may manage to escape to the surface. Some flounder to the surface anyway, in agony or shock, soon to die. Some, like yourself, lose sense of which way is up, and never find the surface. (This physical and psychological trauma to thousands of dolphins receiving LFA noises of about 140 dB happened over a few minute-long LFA transmissions as the ship continued, never coming closer than 50 miles. But the ship saw no cetaceans; nothing was logged. The operation lasted many hours, impacting all dolphins and other animals with vulnerable airspace dimensions, within thousands of square miles. The operation was a military success, by the way.)
The LFA may get you in one of several ways, depending on your species, location, and individual vulnerabilities. You have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but that might include places you need for breeding, migrating, or feeding. You might hear it as a combination of different frequencies and pulses, or you may only feel it, or you may not feel it at all as it kills you.
CSI pleads for anyone to prove that these hypothetical scenarios are not possible. LFA noises loud enough to physically injure may not impact many animals, but the death of even one right whale is unacceptable. The exact conditions that can cause debilitating resonance are possible at much lower received levels of sound that the 180 dB threshold being manipulated into rules and regulations, potentially reaching out to thousands of square miles as the LFA operates. Our concerns include turtles, fish and other marine animals, all largely unstudied.
Until this Whales Alive! every issue since October 1996 has presented a dull but earnest explanation of the Low Frequency Active Sonar (LFA), its possible impacts, and the official process it's being squeezed through. We've left a wake of factual, objective, technical and scientific words that didn't grab many readers, but did serve as an archive.
For years one of only four organizations actively pursuing the LFA, hundreds now join CSI. The last day in May was wonderful, as hundreds submitted comments on a determination and rule-making pertaining to a Letter of Authorization (LOA) by NOAA Fisheries (NMFS) for LFA test and training operations. This outpouring of expert and technical information against the LFA is available to anyone who asks. But NMFS still is expected to approve the LOA.
However, the Endangered Species Act's Section 7 deliberations are still ongoing, although not for public comment. The LFA also is facing increasing congressional skepticism and significant funding questions, and internal Navy dissent in favor of other systems. By now all Whales Alive! readers know that the entire issue of management of human noise in the oceans is focused on the U.S. Navy's Low Frequency Active Sonar (LFA). What else can we do to make our point? The LFA should not happen.
But everyone now knows that it's not just the LFA. Two beaked whales stranded alive on 16 June at Vero Beach, Florida, U.S. The female died soon after, but the smaller, younger male had to be euthanized. Both were malnourished, and the male appeared to have kidney and liver trauma. The whales' heads were shipped to Dr. Ketten's laboratory for analysis for possible acoustic trauma.
Navy officials said they were investigating a potential relationship with training activities off the Florida coast that may have included active sonars. NOAA Fisheries had alerted stranding response units to be extra vigilant for another reason: On 11 June shock testing was conducted off Jacksonville, Florida on the U.S.S. Winston S. Churchill, DDG-81, a new class of guided missile destroyer. CSI and many others commented negatively on these ship shock trials earlier this year, to no avail. The tests, to determine hull vulnerabilities, have been done on every new class of combat vessel for years. The number of explosions has been reduced, but the tests still include several detonations of 10,000 pound explosive charges. Standard authorizations by NOAA Fisheries accept that many marine mammals will be "taken" inadvertently. The Churchill's tests had been rescheduled several times when marine mammals were noted near the site.